The “Toy Story” franchise is one of Pixar’s most successful feats in its three decades as an animation studio, spawning three sequels and four television spin-offs. It was one of the first feature films from Pixar — carving out a distinguished legacy for the studio — and the franchise has cumulatively grossed more than $3 billion at the worldwide box office. It makes sense that the studio has chosen to revive the franchise nearly 30 years later with a brand-new feature film, “Lightyear.”
However, “Lightyear” doesn’t fit quite neatly into the “Toy Story” cinematic universe, relating to previous plotlines only tangentially. It’s described as the movie that caused Andy to fall in love with the character of Buzz Lightyear, who plays a central role in the original “Toy Story” film. Unrelated to Woody, Jessie and the rest of the beloved toy ensemble, the movie within a movie concept proves to be a bit confusing.
Though the film feels foundationally contrived, one need not go into “Lightyear” having seen any other franchise material — which makes sense given the long span between releases. With or without previous knowledge, however, the film remains surprisingly hard to follow.
In large part, the film centers around a community of survivors stuck on a dangerous and unfamiliar planet after a mission goes awry. Buzz Lightyear (Chris Evans) and his partner Alisha Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba) try relentlessly to achieve light-speed travel and make it back home, but each time Buzz travels to space to test the fuel source, years go by for the people on the ground. Taking a page from Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar,” generations pass while Buzz remains the same age, and he returns to team up with Alisha’s granddaughter Izzy (Keke Palmer) for a final chance to redeem his mistakes.
Many of the issues with “Lightyear” stem from its tangled plot and faulty structure — rarely areas where Pixar struggles. The first act moves at a breakneck pace, fighting to establish characters, conflict and tone in the first half hour. Exposition is hurled at the audience without much care or consideration, and it falls short of the high bar for conflict build-up that Pixar has made its standard.
Moving into the second half of the film, the introduction of Palmer’s Izzy and quick humor from SOX (Peter Sohn) help relieve much of the tension and discomfort that plagued the first act, though there are continued problems with the film’s pacing. Some sequences drag on for far too long, while others feel rushed where they should be allowed to linger, preventing many emotional high points.
Truth be told, “Lightyear” lacks severely in the emotions department, repeatedly coming across as unsympathetic and cold. The poor development of Buzz’s character as well as his co-leads stifles any tear-jerking moments the film makes an effort for, causing an overall emptiness to loiter throughout the film’s runtime. In addition, a muddled plot and questionable motives make it difficult to become immersed in the world of “Lightyear.”
Much of the movie’s runtime is spent setting up plots and side-plots that ultimately fuel very little of the overarching narrative. The big bad of “Lightyear” is an incredible waste of a villain, who comes off as shallow and underdeveloped. Combine this with many hard-to-follow subplots and “Lightyear” reaches the finish line without doing or saying much at all, at most offering a few laughs here and there.
That is not to say that the film doesn’t have its redeeming qualities as well. Palmer gives a stellar performance as Izzy, and much of the ensemble introduced in the second half are funny and entertaining. Of course, the animation is incredible, as is the norm for Pixar.
However, it’s difficult to overlook the lack of life and sympathy in this feature. It feels amazingly distant from every other Pixar film, even its own franchise, which makes one wonder if the financial success of “Toy Story” was the driving force behind this effort. “Lightyear” may please nostalgic Pixar die-hards, but will offer very little to those looking for the studio’s next big thing.